Sometimes the chutzpah to be my boldest self comes very easily. I can be open and aware and social in a way that makes other people feel comfortable in my presence. Conversations flow with contagious laughter. In other moments, I have trouble mustering the energy. Today was one of those out-of-sorts days, so I walked off a ways with the tiny plate, too nervous to eat in front of the locals. The herring was so fresh it looked like it had died right there on the cardboard next to the small cubes of onions. Feeling like a bad vegetarian, I stopped by a large linden tree to figure out how to take a bite, my fingers slipping on the tail. “Lady!” a voice rang out, and I turned to see the herring-stand man running to catch up with me. He stopped short to catch his breath, leaning forward in a safe but flirtatious way, replete with a half-smile and some eye contact. He then reached out, put a couple napkins into my now sticky fingers, smiled again, and turned to leave. I laughed aloud, feeling myself again.
I recently read the book Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. The book proposes that every difficult conversation – from a personal disagreement to a formal negotiation – is made up of three deeper conversations. The first, the “what happened” conversation, is about the facts of the situation that caused the difficulty. The second, the “feelings” conversation, concerns how each person is feeling as a result of what happened and is happening. The third, the “identity” conversation, is the internal voice asking what the events, feelings, and conversations tell the person about who she is. Oftentimes, the book asserts, roadblocks to resolution stem in part from one or both parties feeling their identities threatened by the conversation. What does it say about me if I just give in here? someone might think. Or, does asking for this make me needy? Or, does not pushing harder here make me bad at negotiating? When we hold too closely to an idea of who we are, any information inconsistent with that conception becomes a threat and is rejected. We completely cut ourselves off from learning or growth, and we fuel conflict.
The identity conversation playing in my mind this summer has not been limited to difficult conversations with others. It has been live in my inner reflections on many of my new experiences, from the easy wins to the bigger challenges, in my professional work and in my evening and weekend adventures. In my last post, I defined identities as boxes society traces around groups to contain the chaos of humanity. I had been conceptualizing identity as identification with a group: I’m Jewish, American, female. I have since also been finding the Difficult Conversations definition helpful, asking myself, what does this say about me? and learning to openly listen for an answer.
Bringing this mindfulness to my personal growth in this summer of new and challenging experiences has been teaching me a lot about who I am and how I move through the world. I have noticed that some setbacks I can easily brush off or not take personally, whereas others feel far more threatening. Sometimes it’s the content of the setbacks that determine my gut reaction to what does this say about me? If I’m feeling nervous about the quality of my work, for example, constructive feedback can be harder to hear. Sometimes, my reaction is more dependent on the broader emotional context of the moment. On a good day, when I do something totally embarrassing like eat herring the wrong way, I can laugh it off and feel happy to have learned how to eat herring the right way. Other times, eating herring the wrong way feels embarrassing and leads my brain to wonder if I’m just not so cut out for this extrovertedly-living-in-another-culture thing.
It’s important to me to be solid enough in knowing myself I am that I don’t get knocked over by setbacks or overly inflated by flattery and success. Especially as a woman, I often feel a feminist urgency to be confident despite the many forces in the world pushing me to be otherwise. In this way, I don’t want to let the world threaten my sense of self. I want to be grounded in who I am and move forward with grace. And yet I am also here to learn about myself and to grow. New experiences should change me.
I have found inspiration in how to hold this tension from my Jewish spiritual tradition. Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, a great Chassidic leader in early 19th Century Europe, understood the imperative to hold this balance. It is told that he carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On the first was written in Hebrew “for my sake the world was created,” a line from the Talmud, and on the other, “I am but dust and ashes,” a quote from the book of Genesis. When he found himself falling into self-doubt he would reach into his right pocket and remind himself that the world is his. When that reminder tipped him too far he would pocket it and pull out the other paper, which would bring him back towards humility.
Holding this tension in balance requires a solid core and continual movement. When the bumpy cobblestones of Amsterdam threaten to chuck me off my bicycle, I need to trust that as long as I shift my weight back and forth and keep moving forward, I won’t fall. Even when I do, the mistakes are themselves excellent teachers, stories I can put in my pockets to regain something closer to equilibrium. I’m loving the ride.
Carrie Watkins is pursuing her Master’s degree in City Planning. This summer, she is cross-pollinating ideas between two mediation organizations in the Netherlands, mapping their processes and facilitating the sharing of best practices.